Image by Rich Renomeron licensed under Creative Commons.

An Orange Line train operator opened the doors on the wrong side of his train on Thursday, May 3 at the Ballston Metro station. Such incidents still occur periodically, despite protocols put into place in 2008 to prevent them from happening.

Radio records indicate the operator did not properly report the incident, and a supervisor was sent to take over operations of the train. I reached out to Metro for comment but never heard back.

Operators keep opening doors on the wrong side

The Orange Line train operator pulled into the Ballston station just after 9:25 am, headed towards Vienna. The station has split platforms and both train tracks run next to each other in the middle, meaning the doors for both platforms would normally be opened on the right. The controls for opening the doors on the right are near the operator’s seat, whereas the controls for the left side are on the other side of the train.

This photo of Ballston station shows how both inbound and outbound tracks require doors to open on the right side. Doors opening on the left of either train would open doors towards an oncoming train and above the center lighting.  Image by the author.

Records viewed by Greater Greater Washington and Rail Transit OPS show that the doors on the train were opened on the incorrect side (on the left) for several seconds before being closed, after which the doors on the correct side of the train (on the right) were opened for a typical dwell period in the station.

A Metrorail line supervisor took over operations of the train two stations later at West Falls Church, and the train was sent to the rail yard after it reached Vienna.

The last known time a train operator opened doors on the wrong side of their train was on May 11, 2017, when they opened on the wrong side at Rhode Island Avenue station which sits on elevated tracks above the street with the same name.

In both cases, the operator appears not to have informed the Rail Operations Control Center of the error, which is standard protocol.

Protocols in place don’t prevent errors from reoccurring

Metro initially ran in Auto door mode up until 2008. When the train detected that it was properly berthed at a station platform, it would automatically open the doors on the correct side of the train. This system was disabled in April of that year after the system opened doors on the wrong side of the train four times. The agency blamed the issue on “electromagnetic interference caused by ongoing upgrades to power substations.”

Metro implemented a “five second rule” then in 2012 after incidents in which train operators opened their doors early without all cars being on the platform. The “eights to the gate” mnemonic started in 2009 to remind all operators to pull to the front of the platforms wasn’t a catch-all solution either.

The five-second rule was one factor that caused Metro to lengthen its timetables in 2017; the extra five seconds a train sat at a station had not previously been factored into train schedules, and contributed to trains and operators running behind.

Metro continued and still continues to experience wrong-side door operations after each of these reactions were implemented, both due to technical and operator errors. None of them have instituted a fail-proof mechanism to ensure that the doors can’t be opened on the wrong side of the train.

Metro Reasons is a regular breaking news, investigative reporting, and analysis column by Stephen Repetski about everything Metro. Please send tips to Metro Reasons. Repetski is also a founding member of Rail Transit OPS, an independent organization which aims to evaluate the operational, performance, and safety aspects of the Metrorail system.

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Stephen Repetski is a Virginia native and has lived in the Fairfax area for over 20 years. He has a BS in Applied Networking and Systems Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology and works in Information Technology. Learning about, discussing, and analyzing transit (especially planes and trains) is a hobby he enjoys.